At a busy subway station in central Tehran, an excerpt from an iconic Persian poem from 13th century poet and mystic Jalaluddin al-Rumi greets travelers as they hop on and off, bringing smiles to weary faces.
“There is no illness like the illness of the heart,” it reads in Persian, taken from the classic book of poetry Masnawi-i Ma’nawi.
Jalaluddin al-Rumi Muhammad, known in much of the West as Rumi, is reverentially and affectionately referred to as “Mawlana,” or the Master, in Iran.
Mohsen Asgharian, an amateur poet and Rumi lover, says the legendary Persian poet, who was born in greater Balkh and died in Konya, owes his staggering popularity in Iran mainly to his works like Masnawi-i Ma’nawi.
“It’s an unparalleled work in Persian, written immediately after the Mongol invasion of Iran in the 13th century,” Asgharian told Anadolu Agency, emphasizing that Rumi has an edge over other Persian language greats like Hafiz, Ferdowsi and Saadi.
As it appears, Rumi may not have been born or buried in present-day Iran, but he has left a deep imprint on the socio-cultural fabric of the country, fueling a never-ending battle over his cultural legacy.
“The sense of belonging (for Iranians) comes from the fact that the entire body of his work is in Persian, which is the official language in Iran,” said Asgharian. “But he is like the wind, like the sun, belongs to everyone.”
Poet and mystic
Rumi, whose tomb is in Turkey’s Konya province, is considered not merely a supremely gifted poet, but a beacon of spiritualism and mysticism who gave a new dimension to the mystical tradition of Islam in Iran.
Muhammad Ali Mojaradi, a translator of Persian poetry and the founder of the Persian Poetics website, said Rumi falls into the group of “Sufi poets who composed longer epics (masnawī) to guide the Sufi traveler along the path, along with shorter love poems (ghazal) which documented their mystical states (aḥwāl).
“Rumi is placed in this group, as is expressed in a poem attributed to him: ‘aṭṭār rūḥ būd sanā’ī du chashm-i ū / mā az pay-i sanā’ī o ‘aṭṭār āmadīm’ (Attar was the soul, Sana’i his two eyes, We came after Sana’i and Attar),” Mojaradi told Anadolu Agency.
“If we accept that this poem is by Rumi, it seems he places himself among Farid al-Din Attar Nayshapuri and Sana’i Ghaznawi, who were the primus inter pares of Persian Sufis before Rumi,” he added.
Rumi’s mystic poetry today echoes in schools, restaurants, parks, art galleries, and even metro stations in Iran.
Azita Mohebbi, a Rumi expert who has authored three books in Persian on the legendary poet, said he was not only a “skilled Persian (language) poet” but also a “master of mysticism.”
“Mawlana’s poetry in Persian is full of spontaneous images presented through vivid and beautiful visual language,” Mohebbi told Anadolu Agency, adding that love is a “common strand” in all his poems.
“But, it must be noted, as (American poet and Rumi translator) Coleman Barks rightly points out, the love that Rumi describes is rooted in the realization of divine love and its role in the world and our lives,” she hastened to add.
Rumi’s poetry, in its original form, is part of the school curriculum in Iran.
Maryam Bashir, a retired school principal, cited a popular Persian poem in which Rumi describes an encounter between Prophet Moses and a shepherd.
“The poem tells us how we can connect with God through simplicity and purity of intentions, like that poor shepherd,” she told Anadolu Agency. “The poem has become a part of popular folklore in Iran.”
Body of work
Rumi is said to have penned nearly 70,000 verses of poetry, almost all in Persian, compiled in two magnum opus books — one dedicated to his mentor Shams Tabrizi called Diwan e Shams and the other being Masnawi-i Ma’nawi.
Masnawi-i Ma’nawi, which took 10 years to complete, is filled with interesting anecdotes, lessons in morality, and stories from three Abrahamic religions.
While it is not exactly known who came up with the title of “Persian Quran,” Mojaradi said it is quoted in the form of a couplet attributed to the 15th century Persian poet Abd al-Rahman Jami or 16th century Islamic scholar Sheikh Baha’i, while Allama Iqbal, who considers Rumi his spiritual master, also mentioned it a few times in his poetry.
Explaining its origin, he said the first meaning comes from Masnawi’s “relationship with the Quran,” as it is filled with direct and indirect quotes from the Quran. Secondly, it is considered a “translation of the Qur’an’s inner meanings.” Thirdly, it is deemed among the “divinely-inspired texts.”
“Persian-speaking Muslims are often unable to directly read and understand the Arabic text of the Quran, so they turn to works like the Masnawi to understand the core of Islam in a familiar medium,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Rumi and Shams
The relationship between Rumi and Shams and their eventual separation, which many believe inspired the former to unravel his hidden gifts, is the stuff of legend.
“It’s difficult to define Mawlana Rumi’s relationship with Shams al-Din of Tabriz,” saiad Mojaradi, referring to a famous passage of Masnawi-i Ma’nawi in which disciple Hisam al-Din asks Rumi to talk about what transpired between them and he refuses.
“Despite Rumi’s unwillingness to clarify the details of his spiritual experiences with Shams al-Din, the trajectory of his life can give us a window into how transformative they were,” he elaborated.
Before he met Shams al-Din, Mojaradi said, Rumi was Jalal al-Din Muhammad, “an ordinary cleric who would preach and teach like his father and grandfather before him,” but the sudden disappearance of Shams made him “the Rumi known by the world.”
“Mawlana Rumi’s beloved collections of poetry, the Masnawi-i Ma’nawi and Divan-i Shams, were composed after the disappearance of Shams. Many of the world’s favorite ‘Rumi quotes’ are taken from the Divan-i Shams,” he said.
The two stayed together for only about two years, but it left a lasting impression on Rumi and his monumental body of work.
In 2019, noted Iranian filmmaker Hassan Fathi announced his plans to make a movie about the much talked-about relationship between Rumi and Shams.
The idea was shelved after two prominent clerics expressed their opposition to it.
Mohebbi, meanwhile, pointed to the universal appeal of Rumi and his works and its potential to bring Islam and the West closer.
“It can create a bridge between the Islamic world and the West, because he speaks a language that transcends cultural, linguistic, religious barriers,” she said.